Bellator Looks to MMA’s Roots to Entice Fans

By: Patrick Auger
Sep 6, 2019

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Bellator 226 on Saturday will feature four matches in the promotion’s featherweight grand prix. The event, which is headlined by a showdown between Bellator MMA heavyweight champion Ryan Bader and Cheick Kongo, will see two former 145-pound titleholders in action, as Daniel Straus takes on Derek Campos and Pat Curran faces Adam Borics. Meanwhile, the unbeaten Tywan Claxton confronts Emmanuel Sanchez and Sam Sicilia battles Pedro Carvalho.

The remainder of the first-round pairings shake out at Bellator 228, where current two-division titleholder Patricio Freire defends his featherweight crown against Juan Archuleta in the main event. Featuring arguably the deepest division in Bellator, the promotion hopes the featherweight grand prix will help attract new Dazn subscribers and turn around less-than-stellar ratings.

If you haven’t been following Bellator lately, which is entirely possible, the 145-pound tournament is the latest in a string of grand prix events for the promotion. The promotion kicked off heavyweight and welterweight draws in 2018, with Bader coming away with the vacant 265-pound strap and Rory McDonald set to defend the 170-pound belt against Douglas Lima in the tournament final in October. Although both tournaments lacked depth in areas -- several light heavyweights, including Bader, moved up to compete in the heavyweight grand prix -- the format was well-received by fans and critics alike, bringing back a sense of nostalgia from the beginnings of the sport.

That nostalgia is exactly what Bellator is counting on. While it has picked up a few big additions recently, the organization doesn’t have the same depth on its roster as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, with unrecognizable names across the prelims and sometimes even the main card. A major way Bellator currently attracts viewers is to take notable UFC veterans who are past their prime and match them together in a headliner: Frank Mir-Roy Nelson 2, for example. Past-their-prime draws and gimmick matchups have become a regular occurrence on the docket for the company, as it has signed former World Wrestling Entertainment stars to fight 1-1 beef plant workers.

However, gimmicks and UFC veterans can only do so much. Ideally, Bellator wants to build its homegrown talents so that they can become stars in their own right. Rather than adopt a new type of gimmick or encouraging its fighters to cut promos like other organizations, the Viacom-owned company believes that sometimes the old ways are indeed best, deciding to rely on the tournament format to draw in viewers. Depending on the matchup being shown, the ratings for previous tournaments have been mixed. Still, it has certainly kept the promotion’s name in the mouths of MMA media, and the featherweight tournament will most likely get similar coverage.

Things become more interesting if the latest grand prix fails to create stars with drawing power, however. Most of Bellator’s remaining divisions don’t have enough name-value fighters to warrant their own tournament, and a third grand prix with no stars to show for it will prove the format has a ceiling when it comes to generating excitement around fighters. Also, if the fights within the competition underwhelm themselves, that will only diminish the format as a whole, and fans will grow tired of the grand prix scheme.

The promotion seems to be looking for answers to that potential problem outside its own organization. Since allowing former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell to compete in Japan for Rizin Fighting Federation, the two companies have developed a cross-promotional partnership that appears to be giving both a boost. With Kyoji Horiguchi now holding the Bellator 135-pound belt, it certainly appears the Scott Coker-run promotion will continue rely on fighters from the Land of the Rising Sun, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Freire’s brother, Patricky Freire, is currently slated to compete in Rizin’s lightweight grand prix, and should the relationship between the two entities remain cordial, there is potential for both groups to fill out roster spots for future tournaments.

While there is no telling how well the featherweight grand prix will go, on paper, it certainly looks to be the most stacked tournament so far. Several former champions and exciting fighters are set for action, and the first round will be completed within two events, marking a much faster pace than previous tournaments. As Bellator continues to slowly grow its audience and increase its revenues, you can be sure of one thing: The promotion is willing to work with anyone to make it happen.

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